With the games now over, the Timberwolves season really begins. After all, the offseason is the only time when the Wolves have relevance within the NBA.
But before we look forward, let’s take a quick look back: The Wolves finished 2014-15 at 16-66, the worst record in the league and the third-worst record in franchise history. They missed the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season, the third-longest streak in league history.
The season was marred by injury, as the team’s three best veteran players (Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Martin) missed a combined 154 games (out of 246). Rookie swingman Andrew Wiggins lived up to his #1 overall selection in the 2015 Draft by winning the Rookie of the Year award. Other Wolves youngsters had up-and-down years, notably Shabazz Muhammad (promising until he suffered a season-ending injury after 38 games), Zach LaVine (athletic and potentially dynamic at shooting guard, but out of his depth at point guard), and Gorgui Dieng (looking less and less like a starting-caliber player and more like a solid backup). The team brought Kevin Garnett home in a midseason deal, only to see him sidelined with chronic knee issues that limited him to 98 minutes over five games in a Wolves uniform.
So while there is some hope, there’s still a lot of work left to do. And there’s a lot of reason not to be optimistic about the organization’s ability to maximize the positives here. The peculiarities of Glen Taylor’s ownership and the near total-control of Flip Saunders over the organization limits the range of moves the team will explore. With that in mind, let’s take a look at three scenarios for the Wolves offseason.
Should Do: This is self-explanatory. What the Wolves should do, regardless of organizational limitations.
Could Do: A reasonable scenario, given the organizational limitations.
Don’t Do: A worst-case scenario based on the Wolves being as Wolvesy as they can get.
Here’s a summary of how those options could play out, in helpful chart form:
Let’s break it down by topic.
Coaching Staff: I’ll come right out and say it — Flip Saunders shouldn’t be coaching this team. Everything about Flip is wrong for this team. From an outdated offense to his record of being a subpar defensive coach to the question of whether one person should be handling both the President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach jobs, everything screams out that this team needs a new head coach.
But we know that’s not going to happen, so the best we can realistically hope for are some adjustments to the coaching staff. Since being fired as Sacramento’s head coach, Mike Malone has spent a fair amount of time around the team at Saunders’ invitation. Malone’s coaching reputation is built on defense, helping the Golden State Warriors go from 27th to 14th in points allowed per possession before taking over as the Kings’ head coach. In his one full season in Sacramento, the Kings improved from 29th to 23rd defensively, and he had the Kings at 11-13 this year with a near-league average defense when he was fired in December (they went 18-40 under Ty Corbin and George Karl and finished 27th defensively). Adding Malone (or another like-minded assistant) to essentially serve as the Wolves’ defensive coordinator would do the organization a world of good.
Just how bad were the Wolves defensively this year? Worst in the league in points per game, points per possession, defensive rebounding percentage and opponents field-goal percentage. If the Wolves are going to seriously get back into playoff contention, their defense is going to need to get to near-league average in a hurry.
Draft Board: The Wolves should have Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns at the top of their draft board. Towns is a less-polished product than Duke center Jahlil Okafor, but Towns has attributes that should make him the clear favorite out of the two big men. Towns has the athletic ability to play the 4 or the 5 at both ends of the floor (although he is most naturally a center), and the potential for a more diversified offesnive game than Okafor. Towns shot 46% from three-point range (on over 5 attempts per game) playing for the Dominican Republic in the U17 World Championships in 2012. Towns is also prepared to setp in immediately defensively and provide the Wolves with the rim protector they have been seeking since Garnett’s heyday a decade ago.
Okafor, whose agent is Bill Duffy — a known Saunders crony — would be a nice consolation prize if Towns is not available, Some have drawn comparisons between Okafor and Tim Duncan, but such comparisons are too strong at this point. Okafor has failed to show offensive range beyond the post, and most importantly, has not consistently shown a significant impact at the defensive end of the floor. He grades out like a better version of Charlotte’s Al Jefferson. The Wolves are rumored to be one of the few teams left who still have Okafor higher than Towns on their draft boards.
Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell should be third on the Wolves draft board. Russell is a dynamic 6-foot-5 point guard who has the size and skill to play either guard position. Russell was an outstanding shooter for the Buckeyes, hitting 41% of his three-pointers and an impressive 44% of his jumpers off the dribble, which would fit well in the Saunders offense. His skills would pair nicely with Rubio and Wiggins at the 1-2-3 for the Wolves.
Duke small forward Justise Winslow should be fourth on the Wolves draft board. Winslow was less healded than Okafor or Tyus Jones in the Duke freshman class, but as the season went along, Winslow’s value became apparent. Winslow stands 6-foot-6 without shoes, weighs 230 pounds, and has a massive 6-foot-10 wingspan, which he puts to good use defensively. At Duke, his athletic ability and size enabled him to effectively guard any position except for center. Offensively, Winslow is not a volume scorer, instead proving to be efficient by staying within his abilities. He relies on a quick first step to create lanes to the basket and is an excellent finisher in transition. Combined with Rubio and Wiggins, the Wolves would have the potential for elite defense at the 1-2-3 positions.
Emmanuel Mudiay is a 6-foot-5 point guard who was born in the Congo, played high school basketball in Texas and spent the year playing professional basketball in China. Nine games into the season, though, he suffered an ankle injury and only played in two more games. He averaged 18 points, six rebounds, and five assists per game in the action he did see. Mudiay is considered to be one of the prime athletic talents in the draft and has good point guard sense. His lack of play against top competition, though, is a serious concern. Saunders, a former point guard, is predisposed to like point guards, and Mudiay would be a LaVine-like swing for the fences.
Kristaps Porzingis is a seven-footer projected to be a power forward in the NBA. Porzingis is considered highly athletic with good results in catch-and-shoot scenarios. However, his toughness at both ends of the floor has been questioned, due to weak rebounding totals and a lack of an offensive post game. Porzingis is also a suspect passer, dishing out one assist every 44 minutes of play this year. Rumors have placed him as being high on the Wolves’ draft board despite these concerns.
Free Agency: The Wolves will have limited cap space to work with, assuming Kevin Garnett does not retire (more on that later). For the sake of argument, we’ll assume here that the Wolves end up with one of Towns or Okafor in the draft (they have a 46% chance of receiving the #1 or #2 pick in the draft). Towns/Okafor are likely to be primarily centers, which leaves the Wolves with two primary holes. At power forward, the Wolves have three question marks — Anthony Bennett, Adreian Payne, and Kevin Garnett. Bennett and Payne have yet to establish themselves as NBA players, much less as starters. Garnett’s broken-down body, on the other hand, makes it impossible to count on him for any consistent minutes.
The Wolves have a potential answer for the PF spot in Europe, as they hold the rights to Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica is six-foot-10, 235 pounds, and is described as having a point-forward style of game. He averaged nearly 12 points and nine rebounds per game in the Turkish league and was named the Euroleague MVP in March. At age 26, if Bjelica is going to come to the NBA, now is the time.
The other major gap in the Wolves lineup is a backup point guard. The Wolves can’t count on LaVine, and Lorenzo Brown is more properly cast as the third point guard. Signing an experienced backup at or near the minimum (like they did with Mo Williams) would be a smart move.
Kevin Garnett: KG is the future Hall of Fame elephant in the room. The Wolves are on the hook for giving Pekovic $35.8 million over the next three years, and they have no idea how much he will be able to play. Some have indicated that Pek’s April Achilles surgery is the last chance for him to return to being a regular NBA player. With that in mind, as well as Garnett’s gimpy condition, the Wolves would ideally gently suggest that maybe this would be a good time for KG to think about other options than playing. But we know that’s not going to happen. So the key for the Wolves is to make sure that they limit their exposure. Any contracts for Garnett from this point forward should be one-year deals at the lowest possible cost. However, Saunders has already signaled that Garnett may well be returning on a two-year deal.
Trades: Trades are obviously the hardest thing to predict, so let’s lay down a general rule here. The Wolves should no longer trade assets just to get rid of undesirable players or contracts. Currently, the Wolves have three such contracts that frequently come up — Pekovic, Martin, and Chase Budinger. Pekovic’s contract, given his injury status, is probably so toxic at this point it would be impossible to move. Martin and Budinger, though, are different. Martin, who is owed $14.4M over the next two years, while Budinger recently opted in to the last year of his contract with the Wolves, at $5M. Both wing players are probably better fits at this point in their careers as bench players on contending clubs, but the Wolves should not be desperate to move either player. Martin may well have positive trade value before the draft or during next season. Meanwhile, Budinger’s contract isn’t a cap-killer and the Wolves would be foolish to part with one or both of their second-round picks this year or a future first-round pick just to make him go away.